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James Weldon Johnson's "Go Down Death"

Updated on November 3, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James Weldon Johnson, 1943

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Go Down Death"

The epigraph to James Weldon Johnson's poem, "Go Down Death," from God's Trombones:: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, identifies the poem as a dramatic "funeral oration." This dramatization of the soul's journey from life to death and beyond remains one of the most beautiful metaphoric expressions on the subject.

The poem, "Go Down Death," features ten versagraphs in which a pastor ministers to a grieving family. The uplifting sermon remains an example of Johnson's marvelous craftsmanship with words and profound ideas regarding life and death.

Go Down Death

(A Funeral Sermon)

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband—weep no more;
Grief-stricken son—weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter —weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!—Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired—
She's weary—
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see;
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again—
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Weep not—weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Wintley Phipps' absolutely glorious rendering of Johnson's "Go Down, Death"

Commentary

First Versagraph: "Weep not, weep not"

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband—weep no more;
Grief-stricken son—weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter —weep no more;
She only just gone home.

The often rhythmic, deeply dramatic oration begins with a refrain, "Weep not, weep not." This command is directed to the family of a deceased woman, who is survived by a "Heart-broken husband, a Grief-stricken son, and a Left-lonesome daughter."

The minister delivering the funeral sermon tasks himself with convincing the grieving family that their loved one is not dead, because she is resting in the bosom of Jesus, and she has only just gone home.

Second Versagraph: "Day before yesterday morning"

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

The minister creates a beautiful narrative beginning on the day just before the beloved died. He says that God was looking down from his great, high heaven, and He happened to glimpse Sister Caroline, who was "tossing on her bed of pain." God in His great mercy was filled "with everlasting pity."

The minister weaves a beautiful narrative designed not only to relieve the pain of the mourners but also to let them know a truth that is so often forgotten at the time of loss and grieving at death.

Third Versagraph: "And God sat back on his throne "

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!—Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

God instructed His "tall, bright angel" standing on His right to summon Death. The angel then summoned Death from that "shadowy place / Where Death waits with his pale, white horses."

Death is now becoming an anthropomorphic creature who will perform a function directed by God. If God is directing the creative Death, then mourners will begin to understand that Death is not a creature to be feared, only to be understood as a servant of the Beloved Lord.

Fourth Versagraph: "And Death heard the summons"

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.

Hearing the call, Death leaps on his fastest stead. Death is pale in the moonlight, but he continues on, speeding down the golden street. And although the horses' hooves "struck fire f rom the the gold," no sound emanated from the clash. Finally. Death arrives at the Great White Throne, where he waits for God to give him his orders.

Fifth Versagraph: "And God said: Go down, Death, go down"

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired—
She's weary—
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

God commands Death to "Go down to Savannah, Georgia / Down in Yamacraw, / And find Sister Caroline." God explained that Sister Caroline has suffered and "labored long in my vineyard." And she has grown weary and tired; thus, God instructs Death to "[g]o down, Death, and bring her to me."

Knowing that Death is simply the conveyance employed by the Blessed Creator to bring his children home is a concept that can bring comfort and relief to the mourners.

Sixth Versagraph: "And Death didn't say a word"

And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight down he came.

Without uttering a sound, Death immediately complies with God's command. Death rides out through "the pearly gates, / Past suns and moons and stars." He heads straight down to Sister Caroline, to whom God had directed him.

Understanding the nature of God's servant "Death" continues to build hope and understanding in the heart of the mourners. Their grieving can be assuaged and directed to a whole new arena of theological thought and practice.

Seventh Versagraph: "While we were watching round her bed"

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see;
She saw Old Death. She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

Upon seeing Death approaching, Sister Caroline welcomes him as if he were an old friend, and she informs the other who were standing around her, ministering to her, that she was not afraid. Sister Caroline then tells them she is going home, as she smiles and closes her eyes for the last time.

By seeing that the dying soul can be so accepting of her new circumstance of leaving the physical body and the earth level of existence the mourners continue to grow in acceptance as they become capable of letting their grief go. They can replace grief with the joy of knowing God and God's ways. That God simply uses Death for his own purposes goes a long way to healing the misunderstanding that one life on earth is all each soul has. The physical level of being becomes a mere step in the evolution through which the soul passes on its way back to its home in God.

Eighth Versagraph: "And Death took her up like a baby"

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again—
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

Death then takes Sister Caroline in his arms as he would a baby. Even though Death's arm were icy, she experiences no cold. Sister is now able to feel with her astral body, not merely her physical encasement.

Again Death rides beyond the physical evening star and on into the astral light of "glory." He approaches the great throne of God and commits the soul of Sister Caroline to the loving care of Christ.

Ninth Versagraph: "And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears"

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Jesus brushes away all sorrow from the soul of Sister Caroline. She soothes her, and she loses the deep furrows that marred her face, after long living in the world of sorrows and trials. The angels then serenade her as Christ comforts her. Sister Caroline can finally rest from her all her trials and tribulations; she can now shed the delusion that kept her hidebound as she passed through life on the physical plane.

Tenth Versagraph: "Weep not—weep not "

Weep not—weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

The minister then repeats his opening refrain, "Weep not—weep not, / She is not dead; / She's resting in the bosom of Jesus." The refrain becomes a chant that will relieve all souls of pain and headache. Resting in the bosom of Christ will now become the aspiration for all listeners as they begin to understand truly that, "she is not dead."

They will become aware that if Sister Caroline is not dead, neither will be die, when the time to leave this earth comes. They will understand that their own souls can look forward to resting in the arms of Jesus the Christ.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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